Federico García Lorca: The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba (1936) – A Play

The House of Bernarda Alba

I’ve read many French and German plays, some British, American, and Russian ones, but only one or two of Spanish origin. Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Literature Month seemed like a good opportunity to change this and I decided to read The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca’s last play, which he completed just before being murdered by Nationalists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba is set in a village in Spain in the house of the widow Bernarda Alba. Her second husband has just been buried and she decides to close down the house  and impose an eight-year-long mourning period. This means that her five unmarried daughters will lose their freedom and live a secluded life for the next eight years. Bernarda Alba is a joyless tyrant, a crushing, sadistic mother, who uses her Catholic faith as a means to domineer and abuse her daughters. The oldest, Angustias, is already 39 and still not married. She’s the only one from Bernarda’s first husband and has inherited a fortune, while the other four, ranging in age from 20 to 30, are left almost destitute. The two youngest, Adela and Martirio, are both in love with the same man, Pepe el Romano. Pepe seems to be in love with Adela, the only pretty one among the five  daughters. Martirio is jealous and full of hatred. Unfortunately the scheming Bernarda has arranged that Pepe will marry the rich Angustias. As is to be expected the play ends in tragedy.

It’s stifling hot in the play and the heat works as a brilliant metaphor for repressed anger, suppressed desires, sexual frustration, and passions running amok. It enhances the sense of oppression and suffocation the women experience. An eerie element comes from the fact that everyone spies on everyone else at all times and that they all envy each other for one reason or the other. It’s a play that can easily be read as a metaphor for a totalitarian regime. But it’s also an illustration of the crushing power of the Catholic faith and how it can be abused by a sadistic and frustrated person.

This is an amazing play. The dialog is concise and pithy, consisting mostly of short repartees. The only exceptions are the exchanges between Poncia – a servant/confidante – and a maid and between Poncia and Bernarda Alba.

Although men are so important, not one man appears on stage. They are only spoken about and referred to.Browsing on YouTube I saw that a few directors chose to include male actors, which I find very wrong. García Lorca wanted to express something by leaving them out. I wonder why some directors chose to include them? Out of Fear that nobody would want to watch a play with only female actors?

I prefer reading plays but this is one I’d love to see performed. It has been made into a British TV movie (1991), starring Joan Plowright as Poncia, the servant/confidante of Bernarda, who is tied to her mistress by some weird loyalty in which there’s as much obedience as hatred and rebellion. Quite an interesting relationship. I started watching it but this is such a prototypical Spanish play that seeing it performed by British actors was a bit strange. I’ll still watch it some day and  have attached it for those who are interested.

This is my second contribution to Stu‘s and Richard‘s Spanish Literature Month.

26 thoughts on “Federico García Lorca: The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba (1936) – A Play

  1. Sounds great.

    I completely agree about the male actors. Obviously the play was written without male actors for an important reason. One wonders what goes through the minds of whoever made the decision to include men in the live performance.

  2. I’ve always wanted to see this. I recently watched some Chekhov plays on DVD from British television and it just didn’t work somehow. There was a definite’ we’re British acting like Russians’ element to it that didn’t work.

  3. I was hoping someone would read Lorca for Spanish Literature Month (for the simple reason that I considered doing so but elected to read other things). This sounds great – a kind of inversion of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra in which everyone shuts themselves up at the end of the play.

    • I hadn’t thought of that comparison at all. But it’s been a while since I’ve read it.
      It’s a fantastic play and I’ll read more of him. I hope you’ll read another one.

  4. A play with no men in it? Bah, I’d never watch that! 😉

    On a more serious note, it sounds very powerful. I can feel the claustrophobia coming through your review, so it must be even more tangible in the book, and perhaps even more so on stage. Lots of interesting themes, too, with the totalitarianism and the crushing effects of the Catholic faith.

    Hope you’ve been well, Caroline. I’ve been OK, just feeling a little overwhelmed by everything I’ve had to do, and not finding any time for blogging or blog reading. Slowly getting caught up now. Hope you’re enjoying the summer!

    • How nice to “see” you. Hopefully busy is a good sign? I’m enjoying summer, yes.
      It’s a very powerful play. Especially the element of the heat works so well, making this really suffocating.

  5. I love your review. I’d really like to know why some productions of the play include men. I’d like to know what the dramaturges thought; what the rationale was. I think you many be right that the old ‘no one would want to see a play with only women in it’ is the main factor. Pfft! I think it would be wonderful to experience all that passion and emotion emanating from the stage. Women behave differently when men are around and the play would be so changed with men in it. I think the original sounds wonderful and very powerful. But, women aren’t supposed to be powerful, are we, so maybe they ‘need’ to have men in the play in order to make the world on stage conform to the ‘real’ world. I think maybe they’re just scared of women. 🙂

    • Thanks, Violet. I think you’d like this play. I came to pretty much the same conclusions. What’s interesting though is the fact that while men are absent, they are still felt as being very much present. They dictate the women’s lives. It’s implicit, of course. And then there’s this matriarch who crushes them because she probabaly has no chance of ever getting married again. The relationship between her and Poncia is so interesting.

      • I encountered ‘the duende’ in my uni reading this week and thought I would pass along the link to Lorca’s Theory and Play Of The Duende in case you haven’t already read it.

        I think that an absence can be so much stronger than a presence, especially in literature. All the ways in which what is not there exerts its influence over what is – that’s very interesting to me.

        • I find that interesting as well and disregarding it like some directors did juts shows they didn’t get that subtlety. Thanks for the link, I haven’t read it yet.

  6. I haven’t read this play in about 10 years or so, Caroline, but you’ve made me want to revisit it esp. as I’d actually forgotten that no men appear onstage! How weird that directors would choose to diverge from Lorca’s intentions in this regard. Anyway, glad to see a review of this and I agree that the title character is a memorable tyrant and not exactly the best advertisement for a type of old school Spanish Catholicism.

    • I see how you could forget it because men are so present without ever being on stage. But there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes we are only told and it all has something to do with men – especially Pepe.
      I’m so glad I’ve read it. If it hadn’t been for Spanish Literature Month I might not have.
      If you know of any great performance – there are many on YouTube – let me know.

  7. I didn’t know Garcia Lorca had written theatre plays. I’d love to see that on stage, it must have the same claustrophobic feeling as Huis clos. Spanish Catholicism is something else, isn’t it?

    I’m always against changing a text for the sake of marketing. If there aren’t any male characters on stage, there’s a reason for that. How can a director decide to go against the artist’s wishes?

    I’m curious about what you say about the English version you started to watch. Is it a British thing or a “foreign” thing? In other words, when you watch a German or French version of a Russian play, do you have the same feeling? I’ve never been bothered by French actors playing Chekov, so I wonder.

    If you want to read another Spanish play, I recommend El Chico de la última fila by Juan Mayorga. It’s been made into a film with Fabrice Lucchini and Christine Scott Thomas. The play and the film are great.

    • You would love this, I’m sure. I hope you’ll get to watch it. I knew him as a poet first as well but later discoverd he was successful playwright.
      The movie I started watching was British and because I was still reading the play it clashed. I don’t think I would have a problem with every play but this isn’t only a Spanish play but to some extent about being Spanish, if you know what I mean.
      Spanish Catholicism is really something else. Especially in those days.
      Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! I have heard of Lorca but haven’t read any of his books. This play looks quite fascinating. The mother character makes me think of another mother character in a recent book that I read about called ‘The Blue Room’ in which a daughter decides to move out of her country to live with her boyfriend and when her mother discovers this she locks up her daughter in her room on the day of her departure. Domineering mothers (fathers too) are hard to live with. It is interesting that no male characters come on stage in Lorca’s play. It is sad that in some of the directors chose to have male actors on stage. Why change the original playwright’s vision? What were they thinking??!!! 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. I know which book you mean. I want to read that too. Toxic parents come in many forms, with different gender, and from different cultures as well.
      It’s very hard to shake their influence off. the play is about much more even and that’s why it’s a shame, some directors chnaged it.

  9. I always mean to read plays (especially Chekhov’s) and then watch some sort of adaptation (or the filmed play) but I never seem to do it. I even bought a couple of collections of Noel Coward’s plays–but you know how it is–too many things I want to read and see and not enough time for them all! This sounds interesting–my library has copies of the play–it looks like it is one of a trilogy by Lorca–have you read the other two?

    • I haven’t read any of his other plays. I’ve bought a couple of collections as well. I love reading plays. I’m not sure why I don’t do it more often.
      I’m actually tempted to organize a play readalong. one play a month should be fun and offer great possibilities for discussion.

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